Talking tough won’t stop migrant crossings of the English Channel

The writer is senior lecturer in human geography at the University of Liverpool. Joe Turner (University of York), Thom Davies (University of Nottingham) and Lucy Mayblin (University of Sheffield) also contributed to this article

Just days ago, four people became the latest to lose their lives in the freezing waters of the English Channel. We do not know their names, the stories of their lives or the precise circumstances of their journey. What we do know is that the number of people who have crossed the Channel in small boats to claim asylum has increased in the past three years. So too has the number of people perishing in an attempt to reach British shores.

More than 28,000 people crossed the Channel in 2021 in small boats, and the figure this year is over 40,000. Since 2020, at least 47 people are known to have lost their lives en route to the UK, including the tragedy of 31 people who drowned in November 2021.

Until now, government policies and responses to Channel crossings have been based on flawed assumptions, and consequently the crisis for refugees has deepened. First, government rhetoric routinely imagines the chief problem to be a deficit of security. Second, ministers invoke the notion that Britain is a “soft touch” for those looking to somehow “exploit” its asylum system. And third, increases in crossings are often attributed to an increase in criminal smuggling.

Each of these claims falls apart under the lightest scrutiny. But to fully understand the global context of these crossings we must first take a step back from the Channel and consider why people take grave risks to reach the UK and Europe from countries and conflicts that seem distant.

When we observe the deadly spectacle of migrants crossing the Aegean and Mediterranean, we should remember that countries beyond Europe’s periphery — including Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iran — host among the highest numbers of refugees of any states in the world. Refugees do not all clamour for Europe, but instead chiefly reside in developing countries, many of which lack the resources, infrastructure or political support to resettle them permanently.

While Europe undoubtedly has the resources and infrastructure to host and resettle people on the move, the political will to do so is routinely absent. Researchers and experts from across Europe report how multiple European countries restrict access to asylum. If migrants cannot get rights to asylum recognised in Greece or Italy, they must travel further to rebuild their lives.

As for the maritime border between Britain and France, we should recall that expensive security measures have been in place for years in Calais and the surrounding area to detect and repel migrants travelling to the UK. Since 2014, the UK has committed over £232mn in successive agreements with the French government to “strengthen the border”, including a further £62.2mn promised last month.

While asylum seekers may pass through other European states, they are often drawn to the UK by the English language, family and community ties and economic and cultural relationships shaped by the history of the British empire. If the solution to Channel crossings were simply stronger border enforcement, then journeys would have reduced rather than increased.

Similarly, if there was any truth to the notion that Britain was a “pushover” for asylum seekers, the plethora of “hostile environment” policies designed to make life miserable for those with insecure status would influence people travelling here. If the problem was the UK’s reputation for generosity, those policies would have led to falls in the numbers of asylum seekers. But they have not.

The fact is that neither a paucity of security nor excessive generosity is to blame for these avoidable deaths. The real issue is that asylum seekers from most countries simply cannot find safe and legal means of reaching the UK. In the absence of state-sanctioned routes, the demand for journeys will inevitably be satisfied by smugglers.

The choice for the British government, therefore, is stark. It can continue to contribute to the futile attempts to stop asylum seekers arriving in the UK or it could provide legal and safe routes for entry for those seeking asylum. Even in the past few years, the limited schemes to provide safe routes to the UK for Hongkongers, Ukrainians and select Afghans demonstrate that policies to allow movement of asylum seekers are possible, both practically and politically.

Academics, charities and humanitarian organisations are calling for the UK government to move urgently to create and expand safe and legal routes to asylum in order to reduce deaths in the Channel. The government should also dismantle the “hostile environment”, a misbegotten system of deterrence, and place increased attention instead on the global conditions that shape displacement and forced mobility in the first place.

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